‘NAIDOC Week 2014 address at Australian Defence Force Academy, 10 July 2014, Honest History, 10 July 2014
Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues.
I’m honoured to have been asked to speak today and, in doing so, I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we gather.
‘Acknowledge’ is a key word today as we reflect on the theme of ‘Serving Country: Centenary & Beyond’. It is fitting that we reflect on this theme here at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The NAIDOC website invites us to remember the involvement of Indigenous people ‘from our warriors in the Frontier Wars to our warriors who have served with honour and pride in Australia’s military conflicts and engagements across the globe’. As an historian of Australia’s experience of war this theme accords with the way I understand and interpret the Indigenous experience of war.
My first serious venture into Australian war history was over 35 years ago, when I researched the history of British soldiers in colonial Australia. As you will know, the violence that accompanied the European settlement of Australia was partly, but notably, conducted by British soldiers, at Appin, Pinjarrah and Slaughterhouse Creek and elsewhere.
(Incidentally, it’s because a military Mounted Police were actually raised in Australia, in Sydney in 1825, that makes it absolutely legitimate for the Australian War Memorial to present the story of Frontier Conflict, something that, to its shame, the War Memorial has consistently declined to do, even though it is now virtually universally accepted that Australia’s experience of conflict begins with the Frontier Wars. That disgraceful absence needs to be remedied so we can truly reach an honest, informed reconciliation.)
One of the reasons that I understand the history of the Frontier Wars is through my own research but I am also drawing on the work of my colleague here at UNSW Canberra, Dr John Connor. John’s book The Australian Frontier Wars was launched here in the Officers’ Mess by the Indigenous Greens Senator Aden Ridgeway in 2002. It documents, based on contemporary sources, the conflict that occurred across the frontier of settlement in south-eastern Australia in the first 50 years of settlement.
This, as Professor Henry Reynolds has written, is Australia’s ‘Forgotten War’. It is encouraging to see that it is not forgotten here today in NAIDOC Week.
So the first group that we acknowledge today are the Indigenous people who served and suffered in the course of the violence that moved across the continent from 1788: on the Hawkesbury; in what was called Van Diemen’s Land; on the plains of New South Wales and Queensland; in the bush of Victoria; on the Murray, the Swan, in the Kimberley, and up to Coniston in 1928.
Over that vast range of country perhaps 30 000 Indigenous people died directly in armed clashes and massacres. Throughout, the original inhabitants of this land defended their country and it is fitting that we acknowledge their determination to do so and that we mourn their deaths on this day.
As it happens, I’m just finishing some chapters in a volume edited by another UNSW colleague, Professor Jeff Grey, dealing with the way Australia experienced the Great War at home. In one of those chapters I reflect on the experience of Aborigines and Islanders in the Great War. At a time when Indigenous people were not even counted, either in the national census or as citizens, at least 800, and perhaps more, young Indigenous men volunteered to fight for King and Empire and died alongside their white comrades, even though they were formally forbidden from enlisting under the Defence Act.
This astonished observers at the time. As a Sydney Anglican asked, ‘What have we done for them that they do this for us?’ It’s a question that historians are still asking and research is proceeding in many parts of the country that is revealing that even more Indigenous men volunteered, without necessarily disclosing their Aboriginal identity.
Those ‘Black Diggers’, as Dr Bob Hall, of UNSW called them, were only the first of thousands of Indigenous service men and women to serve Australia in uniform, in peace and war, over the succeeding century, as they do today.
We can recall many of the better known Indigenous service people: Reg Saunders, of course, who served in both the Second World War and Korea as a commissioned infantry officer; Len Waters, the first Aboriginal pilot; the poet and writer Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who served in the Australian Women’s Army Service as Kath Walker. But beyond them stands a legion of Indigenous soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who, if they were gathered together, would fill our parade ground.
That is the Indigenous heritage that we acknowledge today. As President of the group Honest History I’m delighted to see that NAIDOC Week’s theme acknowledges Indigenous people who have defended their country, regardless of who they fought. We need to explicitly reject interpretations of Indigenous involvement in the defence of Australia that begin only in 1914. The honest acknowledgement of what happened in our history is the only basis we have for reaching a true and just reconciliation.